A Major Gift Aimed to Address the Huge Racial Gap in STEM Doctoral Programs

National Science Foundation data show that in 2019, there were more than 30 fields of science — including multiple disciplines in biology, chemistry, physics, math, and engineering — in which fewer than five Ph.D.s were awarded to Black or Latinx students in the U.S. While Black Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population in 2019 they received just 3 percent of new engineering, math, physical sciences, and computer science Ph.D.s

In an effort to close this racial gap, Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg Philanthropies have announced the launch of a $150 million effort to directly address historic underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and math fields, and to prepare a new, more diverse generation of researchers and scholars to assume leading roles in tackling some of the world’s greatest challenges.

Students recruited to the university through the new program will be known as Vivien Thomas Scholars, in recognition of the man who developed and refined a corrective cardiac surgical technique to treat “blue baby syndrome” at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1940s. Despite conducting years of lab work to demonstrate that the procedure could be performed safely on a human patient, Thomas did not receive due credit for the lifesaving advance — known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt — for decades.

Thomas grew up in the Jim Crow South and enrolled as a premedical student at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College, a historically Black college in Nashville, but was forced to drop out due to the Great Depression and was never able to enroll in medical school. Despite his lack of an advanced degree, Thomas spent his career as a pioneering research and surgical assistant who trained generations of surgeons at Johns Hopkins. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1985.

The $150 million gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies will provide permanent funding to add a sustained cohort of approximately 100 new positions for diverse Ph.D. students in the university’s more than 30 STEM programs, representing disciplines ranging from neuroscience to physics to engineering. The initiative will engage in active outreach to applicants from HBCU and MSI institutions, a group that encompasses more than 450 four-year colleges and universities nationwide. Each scholar will receive up to six years of full tuition support, a stipend, health insurance, and travel funding, along with significant mentorship, research, and professional development opportunities. The first cohort of Vivien Thomas Scholars will enter Johns Hopkins Ph.D. programs in the fall of 2022.

More than $15 million in funding will be dedicated to strengthening pathways for talented undergraduates to pursue STEM Ph.D.s at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere. Those efforts will begin with direct funding of programs at an initial cohort of six partner HBCUs and MSIs with an exceptional record of accomplishment in graduating students who advance to STEM Ph.D. careers — Howard University; Morehouse College; Morgan State University; Prairie View A&M University; Spelman College; and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The funding will also support the creation of new and expanded undergraduate summer and post-baccalaureate experiences for talented, diverse undergraduates to build connections with Johns Hopkins faculty and students and provide exposure to the university’s research and scholarship, building on the success of existing pathways programs at Hopkins. All summer pathways programming will be fully funded, including housing and stipends for participants.

“Scientific discovery that continually advances human flourishing and creates a healthier, safer world must be fueled by the expertise and insights of people of differing perspectives and ideas,” Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels said. “Yet decades of data and our own experience show the persistent truth that Ph.D. programs, particularly in the STEM fields, do not reflect the full spectrum of available talent. We cannot hope to produce the best science nor ensure that our faculties are truly representative until we increase the diversity of our Ph.D. programs. Through the Vivien Thomas Scholars Initiative, Johns Hopkins now has the opportunity and imperative to invest ambitiously, think ambitiously, and act ambitiously to begin correcting the longstanding inequity in Ph.D. education.”

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  1. Unless they have exceptional social skills, many newly minted black PhDs in mathematics and the physical sciences will have a hard time finding research partners and mentors who will support them instead of stabbing them in the back.

    It is nearly impossible to build up a critical mass of black talent in fields that are (a) intellectually demanding but only modestly remunerated, and (b) rife with careerism and office politics. The #MeToo brigades have made everything worse by adding sexual treachery to the long list of wrecking balls that can suddenly destroy promising careers.

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